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Goddesses of the wind: How researchers saved Venezuela’s harpy eagles

  • Venezuelan scientist Eduardo Álvarez Cordero is not only a man who knows harpy eagles: having started one of the biggest and oldest studies about the species, and taken part in the training of many of the world’s harpy specialists, he is a man to whom we owe a lot of what humankind knows about this fascinating animal.
  • Currently a professor at the City College of Gainesville, Florida, Eduardo has monitored harpy eagles in Venezuela and Panama since the late 80s with a sense of urgency.
  • Eduardo’s PhD work, begun in 1988, eventually led to the creation of the Harpy Eagle Conservation Program. It was also the beginning of another story of unthinkable bravery, in which an ecotourism program built a more prosperous scenario for harpies, locals, and the forests upon which they both rely.

“They called him Pancho.”

I listen attentively, not believing my ears as the Venezuelan scientist Eduardo Álvarez Cordero tells his story.

“Pancho” didn’t know or care about his new name. He was a young harpy eagle (Harpia harpyja), the amazing raptor also known as the royal-hawk. He had been born a few months before at Imataca Forest, Venezuela. Upon receiving his affectionate nickname, Pancho had just escaped a tragedy: the tree where his nest stood was accidentally torn down by a group of loggers who were opening way for a road.

By the time the loggers saw the nest, it was already too late. Among the fragments of branches and leaves sat a small bird with curious eyes.

“He was quite small,” Eduardo says. “So, they took him back to the camp, and we guided the process of feeding and caring for the animal, until he was back to the wild. But they did all the work, we just told them what to do.”

That is the story of the first wild harpy eagle known to have been rehabilitated on the whole planet. A chick of the biggest eagle in the world, fed and protected by the loggers who destroyed its nest. An unthinkable and brave story, the kind of story Eduardo has experienced numerous times.

Eduardo is not only a man who knows harpy eagles: having started one of the biggest and oldest studies about the species, and taken part in the training of many of the world’s harpy specialists, he is a man to whom we owe a lot of what humankind knows about this fascinating animal. Currently a professor at the City College of Gainesville, Florida, Eduardo has monitored harpy eagles in Venezuela and Panama since the late 80s with a sense of urgency.

“There were only two scientific papers published about harpies in the whole world, we knew so little about them,” he says. “We didn’t know the location of a single nest in all Venezuela, they were really hard to find. And when the locals saw them, they tended to shoot the animals. I realized we were going to lose the eagles before losing the forests.”

Tourist observing and filming a nest from a platform in Venezuela. Photo courtesy of Eduardo Álvarez Cordero and Alexander Blanco.

Eduardo started his PhD in 1988 with the weight of this realization on his shoulders and a personal resolution to do something to change the facts. He says of the early days: “I found a professional climber who has also become a really good Friend. ‘Kike’ Arnal. He taught us how to climb to the nest. The very first harpy eagle that I trapped and banded, we trapped it from the ground. I invented a trap and a way to get it up on the tree. And the first time we got somebody up on the nest… Well, this is very crazy, but we used regular hemp-rope, the kind used for tying a big boat. I got the rope up with a bow and arrow and we tied this guy up on one side. We didn’t have climbing harnesses or anything, so we pulled him with a jeep. So we placed him in the nest where he would collect the bones which we needed, the prey items. Then we moved the jeep forward and got him down on the other side.”

It was the beginning of what came to be the Harpy Eagle Conservation Program. It was also the beginning of another story of unthinkable bravery, in which an ecotourism program built a more prosperous scenario for harpies, locals, and the forests upon which they both rely.

Bold ideas

It’s 2017, and in the country where once no single nest was known, we now know of more than a hundred. The first twenty-nine were found by Eduardo, who dedicated his career to “getting rid of the karma” of being a child with a hyperactive slingshot in the 50s. In an effort involving the help of some fieldworkers and an immense collaboration of the local community, Eduardo uncovered one nest after another, turning visible for the first time the harpy eagles, also known as “goddesses of the winds,” that no one could monitor. From then on, people started collaborating, sharing locations, contacts, and their own work in the field.

The iconic case of Pancho, the harpy eagle raised by loggers, illustrates Eduardo’s idea that even the most unlikely people can become allies.

“I was a friend of a logger called Eduardo, and he would bring chickens from home. One day I asked him about Pancho. He said: ‘Pancho is driving me crazy, because it doesn’t matter how many chickens I bring. If I don’t pluck them, he won’t come down to eat.’ This is what [Pancho’s] parents used to do, so Eduardo would take a chicken and pluck it, and they put it on top of a tractor. So the bird would come down from the rainforest, fly in and feed. And, if they moved the camp, he would follow them. And then the loggers left the site, because they changed focus to another area of the forest, and Pancho was abandoned.

“When the loggers came back, he was older. They’d tell me: ‘We saw him attacking howler monkeys, but they kind of shunned him away.’ But finally they saw him carrying prey.”

When it comes to biodiversity conservation, Eduardo is a man of bold ideas. If collaborating with loggers to rehabilitate a chick didn’t convince you of that, maybe other project allies will: “Many hunters that killed eagles before have become our strongest allies. A couple of them have invested much of their scant resources in fostering and hacking rescued eagles.”

When I went to interview him, my goal was to discuss another bold idea related to his work. In his fantastic ((o))eco article, “The country in which feeding birds is a crime” (in Portuguese only), Fábio Olmos suggests that one of the possible ways of preserving endangered species relies on the human propensity to pay for unique and thrilling experiences involving wildlife. Olmos shows how responsible ecotourism has provided people with photographs and moments of wonder in exchange for money. This money, in turn, serves not only the conservation of animals and plants, but also the local economies, adding value — in the economic sense — to nature. In Olmos’ words: “At worst, the animals are preserved because they’re worth more living than dead. At best, there’s this civilizing leap in which they become fellow travelers in our journey on this planet, with the same rights to existence.”

Eduardo wondered: would it be possible to save harpy eagles through ecotourism initiatives that integrate them into the economies and lives of people living nearby?

Living with harpy eagles

In Brazil, the harpy eagles are getting progressively scarcer and occurring in fewer and fewer places. Where they do still occur, they’re under threat from poaching and deforestation driven by economic sectors like agriculture and energy. To the people who live and work near harpy eagles, they’re not worth more living than dead. This is a common issue where predators and people coexist. Locals fear that the eagles could attack children and cause monetary losses by feeding on poultry and livestock, which leads to understandable conflicts — conflicts the eagles usually lose. Without a direct benefit from the eagles’ presence for local communities, this scenario is likely to proceed until the inevitable extirpation of the animals in all locations co-populated by people.

As far as Eduardo tells me, Venezuela’s situation wasn’t that different. “A fellow worker I knew at the Guri Dam called me one morning, and he had shot a juvenile harpy just a few miles from the main powerhouse. When I asked him why he shot it, he told me he got scared when he saw that big bird perched at eye-level and really close. He thought he was going to be attacked.” In fact, it was just a juvenile bird, curiously exploring the environment close to its nest, which was near the construction site of the dam. Eduardo realized that this kind of thing was probably happening frequently.

But there was another thing to be learned from this story: the eagles were tolerant to the presence of the tractors, machines, and dynamite explosions needed for the construction of the world’s largest dam at the time. So, if casualties like that could be avoided, there was a chance of saving the eagles.

“The only way you can protect the eagle is identifying its nesting territory and getting the closest neighbors and people you know to be your partners. Partners in protecting their site and not letting people shoot the eagles or take down trees on the area. Second thing is that you have to educate people. They understand what you’re doing. When they see biologists climbing trees and putting in all this effort, they respect that and become your partners. And if you’re able to bring people that are just coming to see the eagles, get a good look and maybe take some pictures, and that brings money to the local economy, then you have something going that is really positive. Because you can only shoot an eagle once, and you can only eat a parrot once. But you can show them to people every week and bring money to the local economy.”

And this, as the Venezuelan example shows, is a good way of saving the eagles and their forests.

Watching nests

There are many groups of people who are willing to pay for experiences involving wildlife. Without a doubt one of the most passionate of those groups is birdwatchers. Birders tend to value conservation efforts, and they also tend not to spare when it comes to traveling — especially when the birds to be seen are rare, endemic, or extremely charismatic. Harpy eagles fit all three criteria.

According to a 2015 study published by CREST, birding-based tourism generates approximately $41 billion in revenue in the USA alone. In developing countries like Guatemala and Belize, it’s estimated that each tourist spends more than one hundred dollars a day. For the local communities, this means new possibilities in terms of jobs. And not only those directly related to field trips with tourists, but also to provide accommodations, feeding, souvenirs, traditional arts, and other elements of the local culture. And, step by step, live animals and plants start to get way more interesting.

“We put the harpy eagle on the map,” Eduardo says. “There was no way of seeing a harpy eagle before. But once you see something, everybody can see it. So people could guarantee they could bring tourists to the nests.”

With researchers like Eduardo beginning to monitor harpy eagles in various countries — a lot of them trained by Eduardo himself and his team — many nests had become known, opening the way to field trips which were moments of true delight for birdwatchers and wildlife photographers.

Eduardo, aware of the value of such trips to the conservation of the eagles, didn’t object. “The experience I had in Brazil when I went there showed me there are a lot of researchers who are very territorial about their nests, and they think they can put some restrictions: You can only come this far, the eagles are very fragile, etc. This is not true. If the nest is already built and the courtship, breeding, and laying phases have already happened, the eagles won’t abandon their nest. And for the juvenile… Well, it’s a new bird, he doesn’t know there isn’t supposed to be ten tourists there, watching with binoculars. Of course if you’re getting up on the nest and messing with it, they’ll be stressed. They’re going to miss feeding times, and it will show up on their body. But we didn’t have this problem with the tourists.”

The success of the program at Venezuela was intimately related to this openness to people. The way to go with this kind of scenario is exactly the joint work between (1) people doing research and conservation work with the eagles, (2) people who live close to the eagles, and (3) people who travel a long way to see the animals. Territoriality by any one of these three groups means harm to the animals.

“Harpy eagles are tolerant, and they will survive if you protect the ecosystem. When I started the fieldwork, I did the opposite of what a typical researcher would do. By this I mean going to a National Park, where there’s nobody to mess with the eagles. This would get me the best possible data on them, but that was not my goal. My goal was to find the interface between human intervention and the eagles, and see how they were doing. If you don’t protect the frontier, then it goes deeper and deeper in the forest and we lose more eagles. So, I focused on logging concessions, and there was a lot of wrong things about how they did it, but the eagles survived. Alex expanded this work into places where entire areas were cut-down and turned into ranches. It is a very fragmented landscape, with a lot of people. That’s where you can start combining actual environmental education and conservation with actual research that you’re doing.”

Alex is Dr. Alexander Blanco, Eduardo’s successor and current director of the National Harpy Eagle Conservation Program. A veterinarian with a great passion for preserving biodiversity, Alexander Blanco is one of today’s leading experts on the study and conservation of harpy eagles. Alexander, Eduardo assured me, would have a lot to say about the interaction between tourism and harpy eagle conservation. He’s been taking tourists to the nests for more than a decade now.

The second half of this piece was published on May 18, 2017. In part two, Alexander and Eduardo continue to share stories and lessons they learned during their work to save Venezuela’s harpy eagles. Read it here.

Adult harpy eagle perched on a branch and watching the observers below. Photo by Tom Ambrose.

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